A win for death penalty opponents

March 10, 2011

On Ash Wednesday, Illinois Governor Pat Quinn signed a law abolishing
the death penalty in his state, making the Land of Lincoln the 16th
state where capital punishment is no longer an option.

"It is
impossible to create a perfect system, free of all mistakes," Quinn said
after signing the death penalty law, which takes effect July 1. "I
think it's the right and just thing to abolish the death penalty and
punish those who commit heinous crimes—evil people—with life in prison
without parole or any chance of release."

Quinn, who is Catholic,
revealed that he turned to his faith—to the Bible and to Catholic
leaders and tradition—in contemplating the bill that lawmakers delivered
to him in January.

The governor even quoted Cardinal Joseph
Bernardin, the beloved archbishop of Chicago who died in 1996, saying,
"In a complex, sophisticated democracy like ours, means other than the
death penalty are available and can be used to protect society."

Religious
leaders have been at the forefront of the death penalty abolitionist
movement in Illinois and nationwide. But there has been a disconnect
between their activism and the opinions of it.

According to a 2010
survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, 62 percent of
Americans support the death penalty in murder cases, with only 30
percent saying they oppose it. That figure is nearly identical to the
results of a similar survey in 2007, but lower than that of a 1996
survey, when 78 percent of Americans said they supported capital
punishment for murder and just 18 percent said they were opposed.

Survey
results on the death penalty vary little across religious groups—at
least among white Americans. Last year, 74 percent of white
evangelicals, 71 percent of white mainline Protestants and 68 percent of
white Catholics said they favor capital punishment, according to Pew.
But fewer than half of black Protestants (37 percent) and Hispanic
Catholics (43 percent) said they approve of the death penalty.

"The
light of God is shining, shining positively on our state," Illinois
state senator Kwame Raoul said after Quinn signed the death penalty ban.

Raoul
was not alone in thinking that the Illinois ban is a moral as well as a
legal victory for people of good faith. As more states examine whether
to eliminate capital punishment, some wonder whether the days of the
death penalty are numbered and what, if any, role people of faith might
play in reaching such a tipping point.

Racial disparities and too
many wrongful convictions are often cited as compelling reasons to
abolish the death penalty. In Illinois, for instance, the state executed
12 prisoners after the death penalty was reinstated in 1977. During
that time, Illinois also exonerated 20 death row inmates.

"One
significant moral problem with the state having the authority over
capital punishment is that the decision is irrevocable and so often
carried out in ways that are racially questionable—studies prove this,"
said Richard Cizik, a former vice president of the National Associa­tion
of Evangelicals. "My conscience can't accept this appalling reality.

"If
it's not a matter of serious reflection, it should be!" Cizik
continued. "To miss the moral questions at stake is to be hard of
heart."

According to Mike Farrell, president of the group Death
Penalty Focus, many evangelicals and other religious folks still have
tough hearts when it comes to moral questions about the death penalty.

What
Farrell referred to as the "fundamentalist Christian community" remains
"wedded to a political position that embraces state killing and insists
that its use is right, holy, biblically ordained and necessary—'the
Lord's work,' as some would have it," he said.

Yet Farrell—best known for his role as Capt. B. J. Hunnicutt on TV's M*A*S*H*—said
he's seeing a change of opinion among rank-and-file Cath­olics, a shift
he attributes to the "strength of their leadership's advocacy."

He
sees a similar trend emerging among mainstream Protestants but senses
"that the shift toward abolition in their community of believers is more
reflective of a general awakening on the part of the American public."

Farrell
believes people of faith can have a significant impact in moving toward
a nationwide abolition by addressing capital punishment as a pressing
moral and spiritual concern and shedding light on the "sins of the
[justice] system."

"I believe we are moving ever more rapidly to a point where abolition is in­evit­able," Farrell said.  —RNS